By McKinley Melton, PhD

&After years of engaging with Dominique Christina’s poetry in the classroom, watching students be awed by her writing as well as her extraordinary delivery, I finally had the opportunity to bear witness to her live performance when I invited her to the Gettysburg campus as part of a spoken word poetry series. Christina’s visit was, in a word, electric. My students were nearly overwhelmed by her presence, with one of them writing in their reflection that “the room could have sparked and torn with the energy she channeled, with the spirits she called.” Enhancing the power of Christina’s presence was the fortuitous coincidence that we scheduled her visit for Tuesday, November 8, 2016. With the presidential election as a backdrop, the richness and complexity of Christina’s work shone through. Her poetry, emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities, foregrounds themes of speech and silence while challenging shame as an impediment to survival. Moreover, the insistence that we engage with the historical breadth and the contemporary consequence of her work powerfully mirrored the challenge with which we would all be faced — how to stand up and speak out against a reality that we had not dared to imagine yet history tells us was always possible.

During her visit, one piece that resonated significantly was “The Period Poem” from her 2015 collection, They Are All Me.[i] Christina framed the poem by inviting the audience to interrogate the biblical narrative of Eve and the Garden of Eden in order to confront the idea of menstruation as a consequence for woman’s original sin. Working to undermine the continual shame that women and young girls are made to feel about the natural biological process, Christina crafts the poem as an open letter.  First, she addresses a “nameless dummy on Twitter” who had proudly claimed to have broken up with his girlfriend because her period commenced in the midst of sexual intercourse (112). She challenges his “disdain / For what a woman’s body can do” and offers him “an anatomy lesson infused with feminist politics / because I hate you” (112).  Explaining the anatomical reality of a uterus shedding itself “every 28 days or so,” Christina asserts that “the Feminist politic part is that women / Know how to let things go” and “how to become new, / How to regenerate” (113). Significantly, Christina posits a woman’s body as a space for both renewal as well as creation, noting that menstruation not only facilitates the creation of another person but also a revitalization of the self.

Indeed, rather than suggesting reproduction as the primary significance of a woman’s period, Christina first argues for a multiplicity of functions. In addition to the renewal of self, she also reflects on the communal force of menstruation, such that “women have vaginas that can speak to each other” and “our menstrual cycles will actually sync the fuck up” (113). Only after addressing these other implications of menstruation does Christina remind the Twitter dummy,

          But when your mother carried you,
          The ocean in her belly is what made you buoyant,
          Made you possible.
          You had it under your tongue when you burst through her skin (113)

Establishing the mother’s body as the creative origin for this man’s existence, Christina directly links the maternal act of creation with his capacity for speech, literally undergirding his tongue. Suggesting that his language, now used to malign women’s bodies, would be impossible without the nurturing space of his mother’s womb, Christina writes,

            THAT body wrapped you in everything
            That was miraculous about it and sang you
            Lullabies laced in platelets
            Without which you wouldn’t have a twitter account
            At all, motherfucker. (113)

The condemnation that Christina delivered, fueled by righteous indignation and armed with biological facts, was soon paired with the wish that he would be “blessed with daughters.” Noting that “Etymologically ‘Bless’ means: to make bleed,” Christina offers the “lesson in linguistics” in order that the dummy on Twitter might know, “in other words blood speaks” (115). Acknowledging that “blood speaks” in the face of this man’s careless use of speech on Twitter, she charges him to take on the role of listener, that he might eventually learn. The lesson, Christina continues, moves beyond etymology, as she suggests that “Your daughters will teach you / What all men must one day come to know” (115). That inevitable lesson, of how to handle “the blood” for which few are ever fully prepared, pairs the challenge of the poem with its promise for this man, for whom knowledge might dismantle the ignorance-fueled impulse for his tweet.

Lest the poem be directed entirely to this man, Christina shifts focus to her own daughter, who is the second and more important audience for this epistolary poem.  Having ably dispatched with the “nameless dummy,” she deliberately dedicates the final words of the poem to her daughter in order to arm her, “should any fool mishandle / the wild geography of your body” (115). She charges her daughter to “just BLEED” and “Give that blood a Biblical name, / Something of stone and mortar” (115-116). Echoing her initial challenge to the biblical narrative of the first woman’s invitation of sin into the world, Christina suggests that her daughter “name it after Eve’s first rebellion in that garden,” thereby revising the narrative that would call Eve’s action a sin and simultaneously refuting the supposed divine directive that man alone be given the patriarchal power to name (116). Seizing upon naming as right and privilege, she argues that her daughter name the blood “for all the women who’ll not be nameless here” — in parallel to her decrying the “nameless dummy on Twitter” — and offers a maternal directive to exercise that right:

            Name the blood something holy.
            Something mighty.
            Something un-languageable.
            Something in hieroglyphs.
            Something that sounds like the end of the world.  (116)

Empowering her daughter to name the blood that flows from her body, regardless of what “good furniture” it destroys (116), Christina rests the poem with the language of ownership and empowerment. Ultimately, she centers her daughter in a narrative that challenges the shame she is originally made to feel though she has committed no sin.

Students universally acknowledged the poem as one of the most affecting of the night. The power of this performance — on the very evening that many in the audience believed a woman would be elected president over a man who had denigrated a journalist by saying that she had “blood coming out of her wherever”[ii] and brazenly celebrated his ability to force himself on women and “grab ‘em by the pussy”[iii] — was immeasurable. As another student wrote in her reflection: “How could I witness Dominique’s fire and brilliance and not feel proud to be a member of the same half of the species? I felt like I was nineteen years old, a woman was going to be Commander in Chief come January, and women like Dominique Christina existed — so how could progress not be within my generational grasp?” Within a few hours, the reality of the election’s result would sink in.

When next we met, the students arrived to the classroom still numb in the aftermath of the election. We were able to process the election results in the midst of our scheduled conversation on Black female spoken word poets, in a class session that had been titled “Sister Speak: A Vocal Black Womanhood.” The alignment of Christina’s visit, the course material, and the election produced one of the most potent classroom conversations I’ve had in my teaching career. When the students spoke of the role that women played in securing Trump’s electoral win, someone returned to “The Period Poem,” raising the idea that the poem itself addresses biological womanhood and the popular “disdain for what a woman’s body can do,” without explicitly mentioning race. Yet, with 53% of white women supporting Trump’s candidacy and Black women maintaining almost uniform opposition, the election results clarified that gender alone didn’t determine how the votes were cast. We discussed the implications of this inconvenient truth for our ongoing conversations regarding intersectional Black womanhood and the importance of Black women’s voices in poetry as well as politics. As one student astutely argued, Christina did not explicitly mention race in this poem, yet she intentionally foregrounded her racial identity and that of her daughter. Through Christina’s choice to put her own body front and center, as a poet for whom performance held such tremendous meaning, there was no way to ignore or even to de-center race in our consideration of the poet or of her work. As one student argued, with whom I’m inclined to agree, “I think she’d be pissed if we even tried.”

I thought often of Christina’s visit to our campus, and the ensuing conversation in our classroom, while reading her most recent book of poetry, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems.[iv] The National Poetry Series–winning collection endeavors to give voice to the titular enslaved woman who, while being denied pain-reducing anesthesia in addition to the right to consent, underwent multiple surgeries and procedures in forced service to the curiosities and career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a man who would one day be hailed as “the father of modern gynecology.” This collection expands upon the conversations engendered by “The Period Poem” and Christina’s articulation of an intergenerational dialogue about women’s bodies, as well as the incoherency between the power of what those bodies can do and the disregard in which they are held. Anarcha Speaks, undoubtedly, also explores the particular and specific circumstances of intersecting race and gender, pivoting as it does around an enslaved woman whose condition is defined by her Blackness as well as her womanhood, even as the inhumane treatment to which she is subjected threatens to deny any sense of personhood to which she might lay claim.

Christina’s examination of the manner by which Black womanhood is reduced to the biological mechanics of reproduction clearly connects Anarcha and “The Period Poem.” Yet what makes Anarcha such a powerfully complex and layered work, like “The Period Poem” before it, is Christina’s ability to give voice to the silenced — whether an enslaved woman or “the blood” that must speak — and to enable the now voiced to speak, from an empowered and authoritative position, within an intergenerational conversation that carries the force of history in its articulation of themes that remain significant in the current moment. Christina’s work persists in the effort to center Black women, their voices and their experiences, within the historical record. Subsequently, she challenges a history wherein the silencing of Black women enables the myths that would, without any sense of irony, herald a man as the “father” of gynecological practice while negating the contributions of women, or propel a self-confessed “pussy-grabber” to the presidency with the support of a majority of white women’s votes.

Christina addresses the historical connection that drives her work in the dedication for Anarcha Speaks, acknowledging the ways that women like Anarcha operate as ancestors that prefigure her own Black womanhood.  She writes,

I am still reeling from the possessive nature of ancestral writing.  I am still humbled by elegy and the potential it holds to re-flesh the bones. I still tremble under the weight of history. The ships that carried folk I borrow bone and blood from to places they never imagined, where their suffering was bottomless. It is quite something to know they sizzle up through us and announce themselves still. Memory is aggressive. And long. And sometimes inherited. I elect to chase it down whenever possible. I intend to participate in as many resurrections as I can. (93)

Acknowledging the “possessive nature of ancestral writing” in her dedication, Christina recognizes that she must elect to chase memory down as she announces her intent to participate in as many resurrections as she can. She thereby foregrounds her own artistic agency in making the decision to center Anarcha while simultaneously reminding readers that the silencing of this enslaved woman’s voice was also a choice, a deliberate act. Just as Anarcha’s muting had explicit and intended consequences, so too does the decision to return her to a position of prominence. With Anarcha as both the central subject and the narrator for this collection, these poems participate in the ongoing project of challenging the marginalization of Black women within the historical record, extending all the way back to the ancestral figure of Eve.

In her efforts to “re-flesh the bones” of her foremother, Christina intentionally centers the voice of Anarcha herself, as indicated not only by the collection’s title, but also established in its tone-setting opening poem, “Anarcha Will Speak and It Will Be So.” The poem begins with the traumatic assault on Anarcha’s body:

          massa come in like he know i cain’t cry
          new tears

          he take what he want
          he keep a hot hand  (3)            

Though the violation of Anarcha’s body and personhood is the central act of these opening lines, Christina provides her reader with much more than an incident that would render “massa” as the active subject and Anarcha as the passive recipient of sexual violence. The slave master’s approach, from the outset, is shown to be rooted in his fictitious belief, rather than the fact of Anarcha’s existence. Christina outlines the way he moves “like he know,” which immediately alerts readers to the fact that he does not. The suggestion that this is a moment for the production of “new tears” also indicates that there were previous tears, establishing an emotional depth to Anarcha that predates this violent act. Anarcha, as a subject, does not begin with this violence, but exists in the fullness of her own humanity prior to massa’s entrance into the narrative. This is, in itself, a radical statement, as Christina works against a historical narrative that reduces Black women to tools of production, whose entrance into the historical record often comes with the documentation of purchase, or of birth, that indicates an increase to a master’s property more than it does the announcement of a human being into historical reality.

The next lines of the poem introduce readers to the ultimate violence that is enacted upon Anarcha through a process designed to both silence her and deny her any sense of agency or right to her own identity:

          every new hatred
          cinch my throat closed.

          he take me

          give me a name made outta iron
          he say it till i ain’t myself      (3)

The closing of Anarcha’s throat is enacted in response to an ambiguous hatred. One reading might suggest that the massa’s hatred for Anarcha, exercised through the violence that he inflicts on her is what cinches her throat closed. An alternate reading, however, suggests that Anarcha’s silence is an act of self-control, quieting any potential outburst of her hatred for the massa, the articulation of which would surely threaten her ability to survive in the aftermath of these acts. Regardless, the massa’s acts, and his display of power over her body, result in a closed throat. Her silenced state leaves the massa as the only speaking figure within the poem, enabling him to give Anarcha a name and to be the lone voice speaking it aloud. Significantly, however, this poem remains framed by its title and the narrative voice that reminds readers that this is Anarcha’s story to tell, and that she remains the speaker of the poem, even as she remains ostensibly silenced within it. The poem’s title functions as a succinct declaration, wherein the poet’s intentions for the collection are made clear by a definitive statement that leaves no room for ambiguity. Anarcha will speak and it will be so. This poem, and those that follow, collectively providing the willfully neglected history of the subjugation of Anarcha’s body, will turn on the power of Anarcha’s voice. The declarative “and it will be so” operates with absolute authority, prophetically establishing the path forward even while the collection offers a corrective lens onto the past.

Christina’s exploration of Black women’s subjectivities, throughout Anarcha as well as works published and performed prior to the release of this collection such as “The Period Poem,” is often framed through examinations of maternity. Yet, even as she remains invested in the consideration of Black women as ancestral figures, Christina avoids reducing Black women solely to the function of motherhood. Rather, she argues that their full lives must be excavated in order for her audience to thoughtfully reckon with the historical and contemporary place of Black women. Anarcha’s ability to exist as more than a body that experiences motherhood as a result of sexual assault, only to have that body violated again through painful medical exploration in the wake of giving birth, is examined throughout the collection. Christina exposes readers to Anarcha’s reflections on life in her master’s house, allowing her to bear witness to the treatment of other enslaved people including those recently purchased (“They Bringin in More”), those who seek to escape (“She Got Further Than Anybody”), and others who experience the pain of giving birth to children who they know they cannot truly claim as their own (“Lucy Made a Girl”). Christina also provides the full arc of Anarcha’s pregnancy, from the moment she is made aware of her pregnancy (“Don’t Wanna Hear It But”) to her awareness of the fetus’ presence (“Anarcha Feels Movement”) to the delivery (“This Time It Hurts”). The fact that all of this happens before the introduction of Dr. Sims is, again, significant, reminding readers that this was a woman with a complete life—full of complex thoughts and emotions—long before the introduction of the man in whose shadow history would place her.

Herein lies the most significant part of Christina’s work, the practice of “re-fleshing the bones” that history has discarded as unimportant and without value. Christina’s work of poetic recovery is not only for the validation of Anarcha, but also for those who claim her as ancestor, to those who continue to labor against the prominent narrative that they, and the people from which they come, have no dimension to their lives worthy of adulation. Christina acknowledges the intergenerational benefit of recovering Anarcha’s life in its fullness with the poem “The Chil’ren Might Know.”  She opens the poem with Anarcha’s musings of when they “once was warriors” (15). After, again, establishing the idea of a fullness of Black life before the arrival of white figures, Christina then presents a narrative wherein Anarcha hopes “maybe / they know we ain’t always / been so lowly” and suggests that

          maybe they can look past 
          the bruises
          to see when we
          were bigger underneath      (15)

Christina concludes the poem with Anarcha’s assertion that:

           we had hands once
           and a river to bathe in

            and names
            full names
            that called us home.

            the chil’ren might know that
            if they lookin at us right

            we lost our mouths
            ‘cross a mighty ocean.
            coulda died but we don’t know how . . .  (15-16)

In these final lines, Christina makes clear the work in which she is engaging.  She recognizes the importance of names that were stolen from Anarcha and her community, as well as the home that was likewise taken, along with the river in which her people bathed.  Yet, as she focuses on that which is lost, she issues a challenge, arguing that the children might understand and know this history “if they lookin at us right.” Despite having lost their mouths and having their voices sacrificed to a historical silence, the poem’s conclusion that the enslaved “coulda died but we don’t know how . . .” renders their narrative one of survival and not solely of trauma, silence, weakness, and pain. 

By emphasizing and celebrating the survival of a people, Christina effectively challenges the shame to which they’ve been subjected. In “The Period Poem,” she celebrates “women, made of moonlight, magic, and macabre” (115). In Anarcha Speaks, she celebrates the voice of an enslaved woman who the historical record had reduced to a catalogue of body parts that was never meant to include her tongue. In challenging that sense of shame, and the historical record that enshrined it, Christina’s poetry is not only about the reclamation of ancestral voices, but also about enabling her audience to better understand the circumstances of their own lives.

Having seen, firsthand, what can happen when a room full of willing minds are given the opportunity to grapple with Christina’s work, my sincere hope is that many others will accept the poet’s invitation to engage with ideas, narratives, and complicated truths. This poet has produced a body of work that demands to be engaged, that will not allow audiences to sit quietly when confronted with the power of her words.  The electric energy that I and my students felt in our classroom pulses through this collection, just as it does whenever Christina puts pen to paper or steps in front of a microphone. Whether admonishing a man on Twitter to look to his future daughters to understand what he “must one day come to know” or inviting “the chil’ren” to respond to the call of an ancestral figure like Anarcha in order that they “might know” the truth of their history, Christina’s work invites us to re-frame, re-name, and reclaim the narratives that have been shaped by silences and to seek understanding through the voices that boldly insist on the right to speak.

They will speak. It will be so. We would all do well to listen closely.

[i] Christina, Dominique. “The Period Poem.” They Are All Me. Swimming With Elephants, 2015.

[ii] Rucker, Philip. “Trump says Megyn Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her wherever.’ The Washington Post, 8 August 2015.

[iii]Transcript: Donald Trump’s taped comments about women.” The New York Times, 8 October 2016.

[iv] Christina, Dominique. Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems. Beacon, 2018.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


McKinley MeltonMcKinley E. Melton, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, earned his doctorate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  With the support of an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, he is the 2019/20 Scholar-in-Residence at the Furious Flower Poetry Center. Dr. Melton’s work focuses on 20th and 21st Century Africana literatures, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literary, social, cultural, and political movements toward social justice.  His current project, “Claiming All the World as Our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance,” explores spoken word poetry as a distinct form within Africana literatures and examines the work of contemporary poets in relationship to Black diasporan traditions of orality and performance.

By Emily Ruth Rutter, PhD

&

The current poetic landscape is as dynamic and multifarious as ever, and Nate Marshall is a key exponent of its kinetic energy. A founding member of the Dark Noise Collective, a Cave Canem Fellow, the Director of National Programs for Young Chicago Authors and the Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival, co-editor of the much-praised The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015), and author of the collection Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), Marshall is an artist committed to dismantling the false separations between page and stage, individual and community, and poetry and politics. Moreover, for Marshall and his contemporaries who came of age in the spoken word scene, the performed lyric has to enrapture the audience in a compressed span of time in a genre characterized by often deeply personal expressions of identity and social critique. Both this vitality and vulnerability also characterize Wild Hundreds, the winner of the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.

Divided into three sections, Wild Hundreds invites readers into the socioeconomically stark yet culturally vibrant realities of growing up on Chicago’s far South Side in a neighborhood colloquially referred to as the Wild Hundreds, where Marshall himself was reared. Marshall’s dedication to his grandparents for “bringing us to the Hundreds and teaching us how to make home in a new place” (v) and to “the victims of state-supported and -sanctioned black death, from Emmett Till to Damo Franklin to Rekia Boyd” (v) likewise affirms the interlaced personal-political significance of the coming-of-age poems collected here. In an especially rich passage from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator ruefully surveys the 1950s Harlem landscape: “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (414). Marshall, writing over a half-century later about Chicago, evinces a similar socioeconomic and political terrain, whereby the “actual possibilities” for black boys and men are curtailed to getting ensnared in the criminal justice system and/or dying young.

Here, boys of African descent, like many of Marshall’s speakers, accelerate to men, their innocence snatched before they have the opportunity to fully revel in young love or dreams of socioeconomic and professional mobility. For example, riffing on both Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous lines from “We Real Cool” — “We / Jazz June. We / Die soon” (337) — and George Gershwin’s iconic tune “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, Marshall’s “Indian Summer” paints an elegiac portrait: “summertime / & dying is easier. june is jazz / or a funeral dirge” (40). Encumbered by soaring temperatures and no relief from crushing poverty and the violence that it engenders, summer on the South Side is a minefield with none of the respite that the season signifies for Americans with privilege.

In fact, Wild Hundreds commences and concludes with the same poem, “repetition & repetition &,” but with the lines inverted, indicating the cyclical pattern that the collection as a whole traces. On the one hand, Marshall represents an affirming community — “ours is a long love song” (3, 65) — and on the other one filled with the knowledge that this affection and solidarity could be threatened at any given moment by the violence within and without the Hundreds. The “long love song, / a push out into open air” must contend with “a pool of grief puddling, / a stare into the barrel” (3, 65). The “repetition” of this pattern is not only a lesson for those within “the hood,” but also for readers, whom Marshall implies need to recognize that these realities are part of our own story: “a national shame / amnesia & shame again” (3), or, put another way, “amnesia & shame again. / a national shame” (65).

At the same time, Marshall utilizes the printed page to illustrate the yearning and tenderness that do not make the voyeuristic news cycle about crime and poverty but are nonetheless powerful testaments to lives that matter. For instance, distinct iterations of the poem “Chicago high school love letters” appear in each of the collection’s three parts, capturing various forms of intimacy, as well as an endemic fear of the hostilities that pervade life on the South Side. The initial iteration marks the “first day of school” with the speaker proudly proclaiming the sacrifice of personal safety he would make to see his beloved:

i would take the bus
to you, walk through
your neighborhood
& navigate the colors. (11)      

With the speaker’s willingness to brave the gang rivalries and neighborhood turf wars that have riven the terrain, Marshall reminds readers of the high stakes of young love in this vibrant but unforgiving landscape.

Indeed, the final iteration of “Chicago high school love letter” (this time a singular, rather than a plural), Marshall marks what should be a moment of celebration with a reminder of the grim statistics teenage South Siders face:

            graduation

                        333.

            hold me
               before
                         i
       disappear. (59)

A plaintive plea (“hold me”) to the imagined recipient of the letter as much as to us as readers, Marshall includes a footnote that contextualizes this series of love letters: “the numbers in ‘Chicago high school love letters’ represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year” (59).

This focus on Chicago’s children and the institutionalized skin privilege and discrimination that determines their fate recurs in other poems, such as “the last graduation” and “the first graduation.” Read in tandem, Marshall elucidates the stark differences between the African-descended eighth-grader whose education, and the hopeful promise that it entails, has come to an abrupt end. Outlined as a series of instructions, Marshall imagines the careful transition from the boy with the graduation gown — “get home & take off the gown. / fold it perfect, put it in a plastic sleeve” — to the young man “ready to throw rock” (51). His change of clothes marks this transformation from childhood dreams to the circumscribed and racialized realities of adulthood:

tuck away the fake snakeskin shoes
& the polyester pantsuit.
reach for the Sox fitted.

it is crumpled;
a dull, deep black
we learn to be. (51)

Here is the “low ceiling” again, with eighth-graders already assuming the “dull, deep black” role that hegemonic forces have scripted for those hailing from the Hundreds.       

In “the first graduation,” by contrast, Marshall imagines an eighth-grader, presumably white, who is irritated at the whole exercise of the graduation: “when my parents try to take a picture / I pitch a fit” (52). Assured that this is only one in a long string of congratulatory milestones — “there will be other / moments to capture” (52) — this young man feels no pressure to undergo the transformation from boy to man that marked the experience of his counterpart. He is not responsible for preserving the moment any more than he is for a future that unfurls brightly before him:

slide out of the dress clothes.
leave them for the help to fold. reach 
for my tattered Cubs hat, the ease
that there will be other hats to wear.
bike to the park, summer baseball
to play. there are throws to make
& every opportunity
to catch. (52)                    

The baseball teams demarcating the boundaries between these two Chicagos — North Side (the Cubs) and South Side (the White Sox)—Marshall poignantly puts the lie to American rhetoric about meritocracy and rugged individualism. In other words, these two geographic regions, so close in proximity and so distant in terms of social realities, produce two very different young men: one with boundless “opportunit[ies] / to catch” and one with “crumpled” dreams whose horizons are delimited to “throwing rock” on “the asphalt pond” (51).  

Within this landscape, Marshall implies, innocence, love, and the intimacy of family and community are all imperiled by structural forces beyond the individual’s control. To this end, “picking flowers” meditates on various floral associations with both beauty and death, suggesting how closely they are intertwined in a grief-stricken landscape: “picking dandelions will ruin your hands, / turn their smell into a bitter cologne” (60). These dandelions are as much a sign of all of those slayed and buried as they are of new beginnings. Stability, therefore, is not characterized by the reassurance that all will be well in the end, but rather by inevitable violence:  

a man carries flowers for three reasons:

        • he is in love
        • he is in mourning
        • he is a flower salesman

i’m on the express train passing stops .   
to a woman. maybe she’s home.
i have a bouquet in my mind,
laid on 1 of my arms like a shotgun.
the color is brilliant, a gang war
wrapped & cut diagonal at the stems.
i am not a flower salesman.
that is the only thing i know. (60)

Marshall conveys a sense of powerlessness that accompanies the experience of living in a society that has deemed certain groups disposable. Even one’s associations with flowers — what has long been, especially in poetry, a sign of ardent romance — is informed by the possibility that the bouquet will be set atop a grave or will mirror the vividly bloody aftermath of “a gang war.” In this landscape, nothing may be taken for granted.    

At the same time, Marshall harnesses the power of the word to map out another kind of liberating “wildness,” an imagined space in which unfettered love is still possible for those within and beyond the Hundreds. For instance, the poem “the break” self-reflexively alludes to the musical starts and stops that occasion radical innovation, resonating with what Fred Moten conceives of “as a generative break, one wherein action becomes possible, one in which it is our duty to linger in the name of ensemble and its performance” (98). Marshall leans into this liminal space and exploits it for its creative possibilities: “the break / is the place in the funk record / everybody goes crazy” (20). “The break,” like much of Wild Hundreds, is borne of strife but is not defined by it:

the break is where drums take center .   
stage. the break is the center. the break
is the party. the break is built
from thrown-out equipment,
unused grooves. the break is struggle. (20)

Social and economic constraints abound, yes, but music and poetry will continue to chafe against those restrictions, constructing new sonic and epistemological patterns out of “used grooves.”

And, if the exquisite Wild Hundreds is any indication, Nate Marshall’s lyric breaks are on the ascendant, along with his brand of socially conscious poetry. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again” declares U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith in a recent piece in the New York Times. Yet, as Ayana Mathis recently observed:

Even as African-American writing currently experiences an unprecedented mainstream appeal and critical recognition, the focus on black expression has another, uglier face: a deadly obsession with black bodies. Thus, it is possible for the Sacramento police to murder a black man holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard and for [Colson] Whitehead to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award within a year. How are we to reconcile these truths? (138)

Marshall’s rich portraits of Chicago’s South Side remind us that a prestigious literary award, a coveted academic position, and/or a reinvigorated poetry scene will not cauterize the gaping wounds of systemic racism and abject poverty. Marshall’s Wild Hundreds, therefore, does not allow readers to forget the lives that institutions have, encouraging us instead both to bear witness and to refuse the “repetition & repetition &” of American history.         

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 413-435.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 337.

Marshall, Nate. Wild Hundreds. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

Mathis, Ayana. “The Academy.” New York Times Style Magazine, 2 Dec. 2018, pp. 136-141.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Smith, Tracy K. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laurette Explores Why, and How.” The New York Times Book Review, 16 Dec. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/books/review/political-poetry.html 


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E.Rutter.Author PhotoEmily Ruth Rutter is Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University. She is the author of two books: Invisible Ball of Dreams: Literary Representations of Baseball behind the Color Line (University Press of Mississippi, 2018), and The Blues Muse: Race, Gender, and Musical Celebrity in American Poetry (University of Alabama Press, 2018). Her numerous essays have been published in journals such as African American Review, South Atlantic Review, and MELUS. She recently completed Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, 2020), a collection of critical essays and poetry, which she co-edited with Sequoia Maner, Tiffany Austin, and darlene anita scott. 

by Anthony Reed, PhD

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In a moment when many African American poets imbue their poetry with deep archival research, Tyehimba Jess has developed a poetics rooted in the documents of the past without being documentary. The distinction is subtle but important: he often takes aim at the discrepancy between the archives and the conceptual apparatuses through which we generate a sense of pastness and make sense of the past. His first collection, leadbelly, takes up the story of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter as recounted and circulated in the 1935 volume Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly: “King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World,” Long-Time Convict in the Penitentiaries of Texas and Louisiana, which John and Alan Lomax edited and published in 1935. The full title points to a fundamental tension that Jess’s collection inhabits: tension between a sincere desire to present Ledbetter “in his own words” and, referring to the titles of the book’s two sections, their desire to exploit the “worldly nigger” and his “sinful songs” (Negro Folk Songs). The collection does something more complicated, and more difficult, than recover its subject’s humanity. Jess makes readers think about and through the various devices by which we evade awareness of what constrains and distorts human agency. The riotous possibility of human capacity and desire drive the work and, regarding John Lomax, Alan Lomax, and the then-burgeoning fields of ethnography and folklore studies, we finally grasp Frederick Douglass’s lesson that one must sacrifice one’s own humanity in order to dehumanize. Better stated, to humanize requires confronting the reducibility of classes of people to something akin to things — slaves and corpses. That reducibility haunts and enables prevailing humanisms.

In the interests of a capitalist system that sees in its dispossessed a new source of profit, Lomax and Lomax in that collection appear to be as mechanical and functional as their recording devices, while Leadbelly, operating under several supervision regimes, appears to be the only free man. This speaks to Jess’s dazzling skill and inventiveness with poetic form, much of which he carries over to Olio, which critics have justly termed a tour de force. Jess uses a series of formal frames or circular motifs, motifs related to circulation and to proscenia, that contribute to the “circular motion of history,” the complex reverberations of the past in the present not as echo but undertone (DOGBYTES). The most striking of these is the catalog of burned churches that surround the double crown of sonnets dispersed through the collection in the voices of individuals from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. That sense, in the words of the old spiritual, that there is “No Hiding Place” on this earth for Black people, becomes palpable not as wound but as demand. Those sonnets and that litany function as a kind of chorus, offering oblique commentary on the surrounding poems. The second frame, which similarly attests to circularity and circulation, takes the form of a series of fictionalized interviews conducted by disfigured WWI veteran Julius Monroe Trotter, who seeks information about the last days of ragtime innovator Scott Joplin. Those lend the collection narrative energy and the elegiac air of thwarted or exhausted possibilities, and, in the stories that emerge of Trotter and Joplin, the haunting sense of unfinished business.

Between the American Civil War and World War I arose and developed the New Negro movement, shaped in response to the crisis of Black freedom in a country materially and ideologically built on Black captivity, subjection, and exploitation. Euphemistically, this was the “Negro problem.” Olio takes up the birth of African American art, given that the Reconstruction amendments (13 to 15) mark the first time citizenship, however attenuated, becomes available for a majority of Black people. History’s currents are multiple, and they overlap. The period between the Civil War and WWI, “when America was gearing up to be a superpower,” is also the era of the New Woman and women’s suffrage movement, the Industrial Revolution, fierce anti-lynching campaigns led by Ida B. Wells and others, global population shifts from rural spaces and agricultural work to urban spaces and industrial labor, and the emergence of a global imperial order in which the United States plays a key role (“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness”).

Trotter — whose historical referents are scholar James Monroe Trotter, who in 1878 published Music and Some Highly Musical People, and his son, activist William Monroe Trotter — is a plot device. The interviews allow the poem access to the interior lives of performers, especially Joplin, which would otherwise be available only through scholarship and the whisper archives of less formally trained cognoscenti of African American performance cultures. Trotter also focalizes Black participation in WWI and an important history of the Great Migration: he leaves Cairo, Illinois, after witnessing the 1909 lynching of William “Froggie” James. W. E. B. Du Bois famously enjoined Black people to join the returning soldiers to “fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land” (“Returning Soldiers”). Wounded mentally and physically by the wars at home and abroad, Trotter identifies with Scott Joplin: “a man in the mouth of turmoil, torn between the jaws of past and future” (Olio 11). Fictionalized sojourners like Trotter typically serve as stand-ins for reader, writer, or both, charting paths of inquiry, discovery, and new understanding. Olio, which uses narrative more occasionally, makes Julius Monroe Trotter a figure of witness to the specific form of turmoil we typically call history.

“History,” writes literary critic Fredric Jameson, “is what hurts” (The Political Unconscious 88). It is an absent presence in daily life, perceivable through its effects, in the unaccountable discrepancies and apparently spontaneous choices between alternatives no one can remember settling. He goes on to describe history as “what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis” (88). If history is what refuses desire, it also here engenders it; it is a name for the truths we cannot not want, and for the dissimulative tendency to misname our own desires, e.g., to discover “the face of original ragtime — perhaps in order to recall my own” (Olio 10). History is a name and explanation for our pleasure, for the clash and contradiction of our attachments, for what binds and sunders. The limits to individual and collective agency, the pressure capitalism puts on forms predicated on group belonging, are among Olio’s central themes. But its ingeniousness, apart from Jess’s dazzling technical proficiency, lies in the pressure it exerts on the narrow narrative frames whose emphasis on salvation, redemption, overcoming, and vindication obscure the animating force of the attachments that bind a people. The fact and practice of Black dispossession that subtend African American engagement with the early culture industries (which take shape as slavery ends), the prevalence of outright theft and other forms of cheating, and the layers of dissemblance underpinning relations between and within races makes “the face of original ragtime” a problematic proposition.

One of the book’s aims is to see the face behind the mask, especially in the suite of poems that address minstrel stage stars Bert Williams and George Walker. Interpolating Williams’s hit song “Nobody” (covered recently by pianist Jason Moran in 2010 and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant in 2013), Jess writes of “Nobody | slowly erasing darky to don a human face” or “Nobody / working with a truth that smothers Jim Crow’s stench.” (I’m using a vertical slash to indicate enjambment across column break, and a forward slash to indicate enjambment from the right margin of the column to the line below.) As with the earlier leadbelly, formal attention to texts and their circulation, their tendency to entropic expanse, is an important feature of Olio’s poetics and themes. Rather than meaning breaking down, interpretive possibilities expand in the poems’ asymptotic approach to the truth in its non-epigrammatic complexity. One technique is stichomythia — the formal presentation of two voices in speculative dialogue, with two columns maintaining their own integrity as separate voices or read together in a disposition of what Ralph Ellison termed “antagonistic cooperation” to make new social texts and textures (“Little Man” 496). Paul Laurence Dunbar, paired here with Booker T. Washington in tense stichomythic duet, wrote of the mask adapted by African Americans as a “debt we pay to human guile,” and most readers tend to seek the truth of the face, and thus the person, behind the mask (Olio 134, alluding to Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”). For Jess, the “escape into deceit’s sanctuary” also speaks to evasive strategy, the mask as equipment for living (Olio 134).

In my reading, the conversation between John William “Blind” Boone and Julius Monroe Trotter, which happens to be near the middle of the book, is at the center of the collection’s concerns. Boone identifies Trotter as a straight man, redolent of the minstrel stage, setting up this exchange (Trotter speaks first, in italics):

Mr. Boone, I rather don’t think of myself as a performer in a minstrel show.

Most don’t. But the fact is that the minstrel show is only a grin or a shuffle away from any living Negro trying to tell his own true, full story and survive in the world (88).

The catch here is “living.” Rather than the true face revealed at last, reworking minstrelsy’s signs and symbols becomes an exercise in self-making, of creating breathing room in a context defined, as the page opposite Dunbar and Washington’s “double shovel” makes startlingly clear, by the likelihood of arbitrary, state-sanctioned murder as entertainment and recreation. The orderly ledger of “black victims of lynchings per 100,000 blacks by state, 1882–1930” introduces “the reasons given for black lynchings,” which alongside familiar (and often false) accusations of rape and plotting range from “acting suspiciously” and “being obnoxious” to “resisting mob” (Olio 144). It is not difficult to see such acts playing on the stage as racial amusement. One conclusion to draw is that lynching, rather than authenticity, is minstrelsy’s true other, both logically necessary to the development of American industry and empire. What gives me pause is the orderliness of counting, what critical geographer Katherine McKittrick terms the “mathematics of the unliving” (“Mathematics Black Life” 17). A similar mathematics shapes the archives by which we could determine the true, complex realities of Black lives, even as being too difficult, too complex, was itself warrant for extra-legal murder. Poetry is not a counter-archive but a reading now with and now against its grain to produce something unverifiable, singular, and beautiful. Paraphrasing Audre Lorde, beauty is not a luxury but that which might yet pierce the reified veil of the literal and orderly.

Here I think we can better appreciate the extent to which Jess’s approach is not the historian’s. He roots his poetics not just in history or the stories of the past but, similar to NourbeSe Philip in her powerful Zong!, in the very documents and documentary logic of the past. In other words, his investment is not in the lives and circumstances that give history its meaning alone, but also in the documents that preserve, convey, and distort those lives. Occupying that discrepancy between what we know of the past and how we know it, what is knowable and what knowledge does, Jess belongs to what seems to me a new cohort of realist poets moving beyond a documentary tendency that fueled so many of the previous generation’s breakthroughs. In both of his collections, his poetry emerges through a re-reading and re-situating of the documents to the end of something other than documentary or documentation. His is a reflexive rather than a teleological view of history. As he explains, “When you are dealing with the past you are always looking at the past before that past, the present, and the future, so you’re talking about causality, and you’re talking about the idea that what happened in the past” (“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness”). The present neither fulfills nor redeems the past, and the vastness of the past continually overflows the epistemological and institutional conventions for understanding it. There are here neither the easy comforts of pessimism (there’s no meaningful difference between its era and ours) nor vindication, romance nor tragedy. For the ultimate question is not redeeming the past or reclaiming the ancestors, but the futures yet to emerge.

Works Cited

“DOGBYTES Interview: Tyehimba Jess,” Cave Canem: A Home for Black Poetry https://cavecanempoets.org/dogbytes-interview-tyehimba-jess/

“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness: A Conversation with Tyehimba Jess about poetry, the past, and the process of writing about history” The Interlochen Review http://www.interlochenreview.org/tyehimba-jess/

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.

Ellison, Ralph. “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience,” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1995: 489–519.

Jess, Tyehimba. Olio. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.

Lomax, John and Alan Lomax, eds. Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

McKittrick, Katherine. “Mathematics Black Life” The Black Scholar 44.2 (Summer 2014): 16-28.


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Reed Photo
Anthony Reed is the author of Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize of the Modern Language Association. His poetry and criticism have appeared in Callaloo, African American Review, and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. He is currently finishing a book on the recorded collaborations between poets and musicians in the Black Arts era. He earned his PhD at Cornell University and is currently a professor at Yale. 

by Destiny O. Birdsong, PhD

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Sartre was right: hell is other people, and the last few years of my life have been plagued with a series of small but intensely burring infernos, otherwise known as racist white folks. It is important to note here that these individuals are a subset of the whole: I have had the pleasure of working alongside, creating with, and befriending white people who actively fight against racism, who deeply understand their privilege, and who work hard to create space at the table for their non-white counterparts. But goodness, there are certainly a few distant cousins I wish I’d never met: those for whom the current presidential administration has served as an aegis under which they now feel free to — for lack of a better phrase — brandish their true colors.

Of all of my experiences, one sticks out with painful clarity. In October 2016, freshly returned from a writer’s retreat in upstate New York, I was driving home through rural Northern Tennessee, having retrieved my dog from the house of a friend. During my drive, a small yellow car drove erratically in front of me for several miles, speeding up and slowing at will, and once, suddenly stopping along a dark stretch of road. Later, when the two-lane highway widened to allow for a middle lane, I tried to pass him, and he tried to sideswipe me. Silly, silly me, high from the fellowship of people of color, and oblivious to my own danger, I immediately stopped my car and hopped out, anxious about any damage it had incurred. The yellow car circled around, and its driver, a young white man, immediately began yelling. When he accused me of tailing him, I denied it, pointing out his reckless driving. When I threatened to call the police, he told me his brother worked for the police department. When I pulled out my phone and tried to record him, he sped away, but not before he uttered with disdain (not to mention the best diction he had shown all night) the words that would echo in my head for years to come: “You fucking nigger. You fucking nigger.”

That brief encounter with the man in the yellow car has had a significant impact on my life. I do not like to drive alone at night. Long distances and highway driving are all but impossible. I often feel safest at home, but recent events like the death of Botham Jean, [the young man killed in his own apartment by a white female police officer] make it clear that even that is a fallacy of logic in the land of the free. I keep my storm door locked and my door chain affixed, lest someone mistake my refuge for theirs. I have different strategies for defending myself and escaping from different rooms, should an intruder enter in the middle of the night. I have practiced how to open the door for police: how to slowly unhook the chain; how to unlock the storm door without making any sudden movements.

Needless to say, when I stumbled upon Marilyn Nelson’s “Minor Miracle,” a free verse poem that recounts an incident with a similarly irate driver who accosts two bicyclists in a non-descript Midwestern town, I read the poem over and over again — first with incredulity, then with something akin to tenderness. I remembered my own harrowing experience, all alone on a dark road with no real means of protection save my car, the supposed safety of which I had left only because I was convinced I had done something wrong. I remembered too how, on that brisk fall night, my heart had slowly begun to harden, and I became suspicious of any white person whom I did not know personally: after all, I had been caught out there before; I would be damned if it happened again. Then I read the poem once more. In its plain-spoken narrative about two Black people who are as vulnerable as they are brave, Nelson weaves seamlessly a tale of shocking cruelty and the possibility of redemption. “Minor Miracle” has been a callout for my own bitterness, albeit a nuanced one that holds everyone in its lines accountable for their own truth-telling.

Marilyn Nelson is perhaps best known for her formal poetry; works like Fortune’s Bones (2004) and A Wreath for Emmet Till (2005) are shining examples of her ability to wrangle issues of racial violence into hauntingly exquisite meter and rhyme. However, “Minor Miracle” is quite the opposite. In fact, its long and short lines meander, first across then down the page, in the same way the two cyclists might have pedaled down the back roads of the small town in which the poem opens. But one should not mistake its lack of a quickly discernable form — or formlessness — for the absence of craft. Early in the poem, the speaker makes clear that this story will unfold in two parts, and it does so through the use of repetition as well as consonance and assonance. The sibilance of words such as “cycling” (2) “small,” and “Midwestern” (3) create a bucolic atmosphere as the speaker evokes the memory of that day. Additionally, as the two “came to a 4-way / stop and stopped, chatting” (3-4), the language continues in that sonic vein, but variations on the word “stop” subtly usher the narrative into a more sinister space. When the driver appears in the poem in his “rusty old pick-up truck, ignoring the stop sign” (5) and “hurricane[s] past scant inches” from the speaker and friend (6), the sibilance is coupled with a varying consonance, disrupting the serenity of the moment. After the speaker’s partner yells “Hey, that was a 4-way stop!” (7), the sibilance is abandoned for approximate assonance in lines like “The truck driver, stringy blond hair a long fringe / under his brand-name beer cap” (8-9), and velar stops, such as “truck” “looked back” and “fucking” (8-9). By the time the driver shouts the phrase “you fucking niggers!” (9), the tranquility of the moment between the two friends is shattered, and so too is the sonic quality of the lines themselves.

Nelson employs another device between lines 10 and 11 to indicate the disruptive nature of the man’s presence on the road. Line 11 is a dropped line, but is flush left, while the preceding line, 10, is indented:

                        “You fucking niggers!”
            And sped off.

The placement of those lines on the page is both visually disruptive in correlation with the racial slur itself, but also foreshadows the surprising ways in which this narrative will double back on itself before the poem’s end. In the meantime, however, the two cyclists resume their ride, and the speaker’s attention shifts to the simple beauty of the space: the afternoon is “clear blue” (14), and the fields they pass are “almost-ripened wheat / bordered by cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace” (15-16). Indeed, this could be any town in America’s heartland; in fact, the tawny wheat, along with the blue cornflowers and white Queen Anne’s lace are reminiscent of the American flag itself. It is into this tranquility that the sound of the man’s truck returns, its “unmuffled motor” and blaring horn once again accosting the two passers-through. When the man emerges from the cab, he too is linked with nation and power: The speaker describes him as “very much in shape” (20), with “a Marine Corp boot-camp footlockerful / of martial arts techniques” (22-23). He is one version of America who dangerously polices that space with his presence, as the two cyclists can do little more than stand their ground, closing ranks and making fists in an effort to brace themselves for whatever might come (19).

What I find most moving about this piece is what happens in the final, short stanzas. The first part of the exchange is typical: shouting, the man asks what the speaker’s male friend said back at the four-way stop, and the friend repeats his insistence that the driver disobeyed the sign. When the driver asks, “‘And what did I say?’” (27), the friend repeats that as well, and, as the speaker notes, “The afternoon froze” (29). It is a cliffhanger of sorts, but one that comes after a moment when the friend literally speaks truth to power, and recounts the incident without (at least the outward appearance of) trepidation. In the next stanza, the white driver becomes contrite, almost bashful as he places his hands in his pockets, “pushing dirt around with the pointed toe of his boot” (32). “I just want to say I’m sorry” (33) he says, before returning to his truck and driving away.

It is a surprising turn of events, so much so that I wonder if the poem’s abrupt ending (Nelson offers no details about the cyclists’ reaction to the apology nor any indication about how the rest of the day unfolded) is not specifically designed to reinforce that sense of shock. It is almost as if the world all three parties inhabited disappears in the wake of this small “miracle.” Nevertheless, what strikes me as the most profound moment — the one that makes the man’s apology possible — is the friend’s decision to engage him in dialogue, and to be honest about what transpired between them up the road. His bravery in the moment, and his insistence in telling what actually happened is a testament to courage that is equal to — if not surpassing that of — the white driver. The friend and the speaker are unabashedly vulnerable in this space; they lack the relative protection and speed of motor vehicles, which could have allowed for a faster getaway, and they are in a space seemingly without houses or even other witnesses. As Nelson notes about the poem in the back matter of the text, this incident also took place in the early 1970s (Nelson 204), only a handful of years removed from the violent pushback of the Civil Rights movement. The friend’s decision to speak is monumental, and even the language and imagery of the poem seem to attest to as much; they take a backseat to this moment in the final stanzas, allowing for the frankness and simplicity of the dialogue to take center stage. Perhaps then, it is fitting that the poem ends, not with the beauty of the space or any other memory at all, but rather with the note that the driver simply pulls away. The world as they have all known it ceases to exist, leaving only a blank slate onto which the reader must paint her own conclusions, her own newer, hopefully better worlds of kindness and possibility.

It is poems like this that remind me why I need Marilyn Nelson’s work in my life right now. As my best friend often quips, “You can’t get blood from a turnip.” The trials of coming of age and surviving as a Black woman in this country could harden anyone’s heart, and lately, mine feels fibrous and furrowed underground, desperately searching for sustenance during these trying times. In my poetry and in less-than-glowing terms, I have eulogized the white man who tried to run me off the road; so too the 911 dispatcher, who hung up in my face when I called for help because she said that my emergency did not constitute a real emergency. I reserve the right to do that; as a person who practices nonviolence in real life, my page is the one place where I have some sense of autonomy, where I can be as angry as I want to be without causing anyone or myself egregious harm. However, the page is also where I find redemption through truth-telling, and the hope for building an actual universe where I do not always feel both helpless and hopeless in the face of power, privilege, and unapologetic racism. “Minor Miracle” reminds me of those possibilities, even though I am sure that the man in the yellow car will most likely never be contrite for his actions, or apologize for them — not to me or anyone else. However, I can always hope that I encounter fewer men like him, fewer hells than the ones I must navigate every day. And I can refuse to allow my escapes therefrom to prevent me from seeing the possibilities of good in others. Perhaps that is the best “minor miracle” of them all.

References

Nelson, Marilyn. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. LSU Press, 1997.

Sartre, Jean. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Vintage, 1989.


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editdestiny birdsong hunter armistead

Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction
writer, and essayist who lives and writes in Nashville, TN. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in African American Review, Best New Poets 2018, The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature, and elsewhere. Birdsong has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, Meridian’s 2017 “Borders” Contest in Poetry, and Crab Orchard Review’s Richard Peterson Poetry Prize (2019). She has received support from Cave Canem, The Ragdale Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the inaugural Jack Jones Literary Arts annual retreat, and the Tin House Summer Workshop (2018). Birdsong earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, where she currently works as a research coordinator.

 

by Sheryl Gifford, PhD

&Kwame Dawes’ City of Bones: A Testament (2017) evidences the poet’s characteristic multiplicity of voice and topical scope. Throughout the collection’s four parts, Dawes excavates the skeletons of personal and collective Black histories in starkly rendered poems that depict lives informed by a legacy of slavery. The collection’s first poem, “Crossroads,” initiates a narrative about the inheritance and consequences of this legacy for Troy Maxson, the son of a former slave whose development of identity has been displaced by the hegemony of slavery. Concretized in “the foreman’s bark, the burden / of cotton” (13-14), this hegemonic displacement of identity corrupts the father’s autonomous development of Black masculinity. The father transmits this legacy of masculine identity — one “blighted” by the aggression and violence of the patriarchal system that had enslaved him — to Troy in a crossroads conflict that replicates slaveholders’ emasculation of male slaves through sexual dominance over the latter’s female partners. Troy’s inheritance of the father’s corrupted masculinity is realized in poems that depict his own patriarchal identity, particularly in relation to his sons Cory and Lyon. Whereas Cory’s masculinity bears the aggression that characterized his grandfather’s identity, Lyon’s masculinity is tempered by artistic sensitivity. Dawes utilizes form to convey the viability of each son’s model of masculinity, ultimately depicting the restoration of Black masculinity through art and reiterating the poet’s role in ordering the fragments of Black identity.   

Dawes’ use of form to chart the course of Black masculinity is most evident in “Hope’s Legacy,” a sequence comprised largely of sonnets dedicated to Troy’s wife Rose Maxson, his sons Cory and Lyon Maxson, his friend Jim Bono, and Raynell Maxson, who may be Troy’s illegitimate child. “Hope’s Legacy” follows “Plot,” the first of two poems in the collection with the same title. The first “Plot” poem reveals Troy’s adultery, a transgression which replicates the father’s violation of a sexual boundary, “shatter[s] order” and leads Troy’s children to “lament the sins of their father.” This is most evident in “Cory Maxson,” the first poem in “Hope’s Legacy.” The primacy of Cory’s 14-line poem in the sequence mirrors that of Troy’s in the collection, emphasizing that the “sins of the father” have historically characterized the development of Black masculinity.

This idea is reinforced by the form of Cory’s poem, which is rendered in unrhymed couplets that replicate those in “Crossroads,” and by their tenor, which evidences both speakers’ explicit hatred of their fathers. The couplets visually represent the tension that characterizes both father-son relationships, the white space between them signifying the hegemonic system of slavery which produces a model of masculinity rooted in the dynamic between slaveholder and slave – men and “boys” — and asserts itself through violence, displacing the autonomous development of Black masculinity and forcing the lineage of father and son apart.

Dawes utilizes form to convey the viability of each son’s model of masculinity, ultimately depicting the restoration of Black masculinity through art and reiterating the poet’s role in ordering the fragments of Black identity.   

Cory describes his relationship with his father as an “exquisite hatred” generated by “the thought of someone taking the heat / for someone else, or the word ‘father’ ” (3-4). The placement of the word “or” suggests that “father” is an alternative for one who accepts someone else’s sins as his own, reiterating the idea in “Plot” that (Black) sons embody their fathers’ sins, namely through their inheritance of their fathers’ corrupted masculine identity. Indeed, Dawes’ structuring of Cory’s poem in unrhymed couplets underscores its elegiac quality — its lament the absence of Troy’s model of masculinity, albeit blighted, and its consolation Troy’s dog Blue, who “loved [Cory] next, without a fuss” (14).  The linear couplets of Cory’s poem represent the parallel sides of a track that foreseeably will never meet, an ironic reference to the crossroads at which the division between father and son was established. Just as this division rendered Troy’s identity liminal and rootless — he describes himself at the South Carolina crossroads as being in a place “where everything is dark / and home don’t have a sound / no more” (60-62) — so too does Troy’s death preclude any negotiation of their adversarial relationship, rendering Cory’s identity similarly liminal and rootless: “Emptied of you / I have no one to hate” (8-9).

In contrast to the seven unrhymed couplets that constitute Cory’s poem, Dawes constructs Lyon’s poem (“Lyon Maxson”) as a sonnet that replicates the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean form and the thematic organization of the Petrarchan form. His use of the Shakespearean form’s rhyme scheme, which distinguishes ideas in three quatrains before synthesizing them in a rhyming couplet, suggests Lyon’s cohesive integration of his identities as man, son and artist. Whereas Cory’s poem emphasized the opposition between father and son, the rhyming couplet that concludes Lyon’s sonnet suggests that his synthesis of identities is rooted in a bond with Troy, who is idealized within its final lines as an affectionate, protective father: “laughing, he will say my name softly, / give me some money, and even hold me” (13-14). In contrast to Cory’s elegiac reflection, Lyon anticipates Troy’s loving gestures; this visionary perspective, a quality of the prototypical artist, suggests that Troy’s identity is founded upon creativity rather than masculinity. His sonnet’s cohesive form reinforces his identity’s stability, which contrasts his brother’s liminal, rootless identity as a result of “hav[ing] no one to hate.” The enjambed lines in Lyon’s sonnet also suggest his identity’s stability by evidencing a seamless transition from thought to thought. The continuity of ideas in Lyon’s sonnet contrasts the clipped syntax and separated couplets in Cory’s poem, again highlighting Lyon’s security in his creative identity.

Lyon’s ability to revise his father’s feminizing humor as loving, tender gestures typically associated with femininity also enables Lyon to enact his identity as Troy’s son, which creates an opportunity for Troy to assume the identity of an affectionate father.

Dawes’ use of the Petrarchan sonnet’s thematic structure to convey Lyon’s relationship with his father promotes the idea that Black identity can be reconstructed through art. He reiterates this idea throughout City of Bones in allusions to the Petrarchan sonnet form. One example is the allusion to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” in the epigraph to “Shod,” a poem that voices an enslaved man’s desire to direct the nature and trajectory of his own life’s journey. Hopkins’ sonnet presents nature’s inherent generativity, “the dearest freshness deep down things” (10), as a resolution to the problem of man’s destruction of God’s creation. Similarly, Lyon’s creativity enables him to imagine the potential in Troy’s identity prior to its displacement by his father’s corrupted masculinity. Whereas the other poems in “Hope’s Legacy” frame their respective speaker’s or subject’s relationship to Troy with his sin of adultery, Lyon accepts his father as he is. Though Troy emasculates Lyon by ridiculing his artistic nature — “He calls me a waste of sperm, a dreamer / a fool, a boy with only music to show / for it all” (10-11) — he knows that “somehow, deep down” his father’s identity is more a creative medium than the model of masculinity that disappoints Cory. This is evident in the location of Lyon’s “deep down” intuition at the sonnet’s turn, which offers an alternative to the dilemma of Troy’s masculinity depicted in the octave. Lyon’s ability to revise his father’s feminizing humor as loving, tender gestures typically associated with femininity also enables Lyon to enact his identity as Troy’s son, which creates an opportunity for Troy to assume the identity of an affectionate father. Lyon’s ability to balance the failures and shame associated with Troy’s masculinity with his potential as loving father is reinforced by Dawes’ choice of a Petrarchan thematic structure, the octave’s problem being the displacement of Troy’s autonomous development of identity and the sestet’s resolution Lyon’s redeeming perspective.

In “Hope’s Legacy,” Dawes perpetuates the idea that art creates a space for the recovery of identity. Perhaps there is something of Wordsworth’s ideal poet in Dawes’ construct of the creative persona embodied in Lyon Maxson, for in “Hope’s Legacy” Lyon evidences a similar tenderness, knowledge of human nature and “comprehensive soul” in his redemptive perspective of Troy’s masculine identity. But there is something more: a generosity of spirit that unearths “the dearest freshness deep down things” and brings them to light. In this way, Lyon is not unlike his creator Dawes: both inhabit the liminal space of a sonnet’s volta, its precedent a history that culminates in crossroads battles between fathers and sons and its potential in creative production, “a universe, a sea / of stories, worlds and worlds” that offer “clue[s] to the impossible” (8-9, 11-12).

Works Cited

Dawes, Kwame. City of Bones: A Testament. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2017.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur.” In Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 27.

Wordsworth, William. “Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads.” PoetryFoundation.org. www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69383/observations-prefixed-to-lyrical-ballads. Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Sheryl Gifford

Sheryl C. Gifford is a senior instructor in the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University. Her research interests include Black poetry, Caribbean literature and art, environmental art, and interdisciplinary pedagogy. One of her recent projects contextualizes Jason deCaires Taylor’s Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) underwater installations within Mexico’s tourism industry; another examines how Kwame Dawes’ collaborative works Hope’s Hospice and the Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica digital project utilize interdisciplinarity to reflect the ravages of dis-ease on a regional body and broaden the platform for social justice interventions.  

by Julie Philips Brown, PhD

&

prayer
dear anastacia renee anastacia-renee –renée –reneé, dear luna dear alice o, saraphina. dear super-shero,[i] queer shero of color, dear play(wright) muse(maker) painter & civic siren. dear poet, moon(light) with me us you. when we arrive at the river drowning. body floating like a lily pad, heart gurgling for air,show us how to stand how to draw ourselves up to finish upon the earth, halcyons burning — [ii]

Let us begin with an invocation to our muse, whose mythic force has only just begun its glorious thunder. The author of four books, Anastacia-Reneé published three of them within a matter of months in 2017: Forget It from Black Radish; Answer(Me), a Winged City chapbook from Argus House Press; and (v.) from Gramma Poetry. Each of these collections demonstrates the poet’s remarkable range, and together they chart a richly evocative oeuvre whose sudden, almost supernatural arrival belies her long years of labor and care for her craft.

These poems throb with what is most human in all of us: our selves, children, families, lovers, and communities — our matterings and our survivals.

These poems throb with what is most human in all of us: our selves, children, families, lovers, and communities — our matterings and our survivals.[iii] To experience Anastacia-Reneé’s poems is to marvel/wonder/wander in their exquisite architecture, their tangled roots and branches, their involutions and unmakings of identity, consciousness, and the ontological certainty of things. Each collection proceeds according to its own aesthetic logic and narrative particulars. Forget It is a cross-genre, fictionalized memoir, its oblique recollections of miscarriage, divorce, surrenders, and resurrections told in lyric prose poems, as well as surreal dream texts, subterranean subtexts, annotations, confessions, dialogues with alter egos, and asides to the reader. Answer(Me) rollicks in the intricacies of two women’s love affair, celebrating and lamenting the passages of pleasure and plight between them. Tyehimba Jess has described (v.) as “a blackgirl womansong” (Publisher’s Blurb). Inflected by the long history of violence against men, women, and children of color in America, as well as the white supremacist resurgence following the 2016 election, these poems respond to the current crisis of race, and especially to the perils and precarity of Black women, with an historical awareness as deeply rooted as this nation’s original sin. In each of these collections, Anastacia-Reneé complicates prevailing notions of the self and proposes a fugitive poetics. Through her annotations, asides, silences, and narrative disjunctions, she splits self from self and shows her readers a way to survive — as super-shero alter ego, as lover, as civic siren, and as mother to “her daughters,” i.e., future generations of young Black women.

* * *

answer

Anastacia-Reneé seems to say “forget it” to remind us to forget ourselves as we are — as we think we truly are — and to greet an image of ourselves as redeemed, complete, and sheroic.

& she came (came, naked & unashamed) by moonlight (lord thank you), the heart a tenant, the heart a house. heart(broken) she came to tell us the city, a tired woman after a long day of being black, to low for the pelvic bones. then went away again. she is / was / be here, she is inside the mirror she does not reflect she is any real thing she _____ me us her, for real & so much.[iv]

never tell a story without a beginning middle or end or annotations or footnotes or translations or or or or never let it be headless like a horseman riding through the days night. tell it not as your [sic] remember it but as it truly is/was/be///for this (namaste) get inside the mirror so as not to be a reflection of any real thing so as not to see your true self only an image of who you thought you were to be. never stain a walkway or a person only mark yourself (31).

Though these words come from Answer(Me), they serve as both ethical edict and ars poetica for much of Anastacia-Reneé’s work. Never tell a story without structure, but never tell it, too, without exceptions, contextualizations, subversions. Never let your story be haunted. Against the vagaries of memory and reflection, Anastacia-Reneé proposes what “truly is/was/be” and the ontological certainty of “any real thing.” The difficulty, if not the impossibility, of such a proposal is evident in her temporal conflation of the simple present, simple past, and present (or is it future?) continuous, as well as the cryptic modifier “truly.”

For the poet, recognition (of “any real thing,” or of the self, though not “your true self” but rather “an image of who you thought you were to be”) depends not upon remembering, but forgetting: “for this (namaste) get inside the mirror” [my emphasis]. Within the very word “forget” lies “namaste,” a term that blesses and recognizes an other, but also a word the poet deconstructs as “namaste. nah ima stay. ima stay. stay”— and therein, too, lies equanimity and salvation. Anastacia-Reneé seems to say “forget it” to remind us to forget ourselves as we are — as we think we truly are — and to greet an image of ourselves as redeemed, complete, and sheroic.

* * *

Forget It. Anastacia-Reneé’s cross-genre, fictionalized memoir begins with this counter-intuitive imperative: forget it. Forget what, and why? How? The book begins in the mode of “pre-memoir,” perhaps a pre-conscious state in which “you dream of alice,” and find “alice says / she’s dreaming of you” (3-5). Almost immediately, it is clear that the reader has followed Anastacia-Reneé into her dreamworld, a kind of mythological present in which alice has always already been waiting. Certainly, she is the Alice of Wonderland, but more pressingly, she is the alice metropolis of Anastacia-Reneé’s recent play, 9 Ounces[v] (she also appears in (v.) with Luna, her younger compatriot from the play). In Forget It, alice becomes the speaker’s primary interlocutor, a half-dreamt, half-remembered alter ego whose voice sometimes blends with that of the speaker.

Alice’s most important function in the narrative is to embody the possibility of survival, if not outright resurrection. In Part V of the book, “Re(member),” the speaker “meet[s] alice” in what “is not a believable / fairy tale,” and here remembering is not only recollection, but the reconstitution of the body and the self (55). The prose poem “No Fairy Tale (2)” depicts an Opheliac scene, in which a young girl almost succumbs to the river, only to split from herself and raise herself up again:

once upon a time a girl met herself at the river when she nearly drowned. her body floating like a lily pad. her heart gurgling for air. when she felt herself begin to slip. she, herself rose from the river to save her. self. & this is the tale we tell our daughters. the ones we never push through our heavens. the ones we meet along the way in classrooms, coffee shops or crisis hotlines. this is what we mean when we say love. yourself. (58)

This “she” is of mythic origin: “once upon a time.” If “this is the tale we tell our daughters” to teach them to survive and to love themselves, then it is also the tale that testifies to the power of narrative, and to the ways that poems see us through the gravest of circumstances.

The struggle to survive, especially for Black girls and women, is as old as the fairy tale itself, and in the way of most traumas, the cycle of peril persists and repeats, again and again. Thus the speaker finds herself at the river, drowning:

my body floating like a lily pad. my heart gurgling for air, myself, she too. was drowning. & when we both thought we were sinking. to the bottom of our lifetime many little girls drew us. back to finish upon the earth. & this is what i will tell my daughters. the ones i won’t push through my heavens. the ones i won’t meet in classrooms, coffee shops, or crisis hotlines. i will tell this tale to the daughters who are bent. open. whose exhales are wedged between fetch & swell (58).

Though the tale repeats itself with a grim, relentless certainty, it does so with a critical difference: this time both the speaker and her alter ego are drowning, and neither alone seems enough to save the other. It is only the thought of the “little girls” before her and after — the ancestors who lived, and the daughters who will survive her — that calls the speaker and her self “back to finish on the earth.” And somehow they do come back — perhaps that’s just the sheroic thing to do.

* * *

No single word suffices to describe these poems: they are sumptuous, playful, wry, pointed, pert.

Anastacia-Reneé’s chapbook Answer(Me) is a deftly structured text, both in its visual presentation and its dramatic narrative. The collection recounts the (un)couplings of two lovers over the course of three acts, “Debut,” “Milieu,” and “Fin,” with each act presenting a series of contiguously numbered scenes. Most of these scenes are further divided into four parts: a prayer, an answer, a proverb, and an aside addressed to the collection’s “dear reader.” No single word suffices to describe these poems: they are sumptuous, playful, wry, pointed, pert. They flirt and plead unapologetically in their supplications to various female deities, such as the “goddess of magical realism & chocolate dipped in truth on a waffle cone” (11).

The poems are particularly unabashed in their evocations of the female body and the unparalleled pleasures the two women lovers find in one another. Early in their relationship, the speaker pleads for one more sleepless night, so much the better to enjoy her lover:

dear sleep goddess don’t come to our garden tonight. (s’il vous plaît) do not use your powers of the sand and secret dust. we have to fuck (all night.) & we are not adam & eve about this—no shame in our desire to stay/lay/pray/gay awake, eyes/arms/legs (wide open) (15).

Of course, these lovers are not “adam & eve about this” — they are two women, unashamed, and, as the text makes clear with its visual pun, “(wide open)” in the throes of their sensual delight. Everywhere in this prayer, and in its answer, the sacred and the profane meet: Lo, the speaker seems to say, “& sleep did not show herself until we called her … & we did not know she draped herself upon us until we church-fanned the next day (lord thank you)” (15). What better image than church fans to conjure the subversive ecstasy and exhaustion of their passion?

Later, in “Fin,” we find the lovers still together, but also no longer untouched by the risks of intimacy. As the speaker later warns in the language of her francophone lover: “Ne jamais tomber amoureux” (30). Never fall in/to/(ill) with love; it is sure to be your downfall. For Anastasia-Reneé’s speaker, it is clear that sustained intimacy leaves her vulnerable to profound longing and therefore risks the integrity of the self:

dear readers have you ever missed someone in the way you miss yourself & you say where oh where have I been? & you look for yourself in your clothing & you look for yourself in your job & you look for yourself in yourself & yourself looks back at you & tells you she is unavailable asks you to please leave your number & a message (25).

What a peculiar turn this speaker takes: to pursue her own self like a would-be lover whose affections go unanswered. Anastasia-Reneé literalizes this conceit, insisting on an absurd situation in which she calls her self, leaving this message “at the beep” (25):

hey self, I want to let you know
I found you! you tucked yourself
away inside your lovers black hair
in a bobbi pin around your
favorite curl & for this reason
you will never be lost or forgotten
or misplaced because your lover
has a thing for bobby pins … . (25)

Ghosted by her self, the speaker nevertheless takes comforts in the “bobbi pin” and the slight, “favorite curl” of her “lovers black hair.” These might seem too passing a place to call home, but perhaps it is as good as anywhere. At least there is this: the vulnerability of greeting and recognizing the beloved, of declaring “nah ima stay.”

* * *

… the poem leaves us with this knowledge, too: there is no single, individual super-shero who (with)stands alone. The super-(s)heroes among us are the anonymous, amorphous selves of the we, the us, together.

In the book’s afterword, Rezina Habtemariam describes (v.) as “a raw meditation on the politics brutally imposed on the bodies of Black girls and women,” in which the poet “interrogates what she poignantly describes as small deaths and the fracturing of selves they cause” (122). The signs of violence, death, structural racism, and misogyny are writ everywhere throughout these poems, though they astonish in their range of style and subject matter. (v.) includes paeans to “Becky the Patron Saint”; anti-fairy tales and anti-lullabies; autobiographical lyrics wrenched by microaggressions; blues poems; dramatic personae poems; orthographic deconstructions; vodun incantations and zombis; multiple-choice test questions; letters; glossaries; nature lyrics; and a long poem for Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister. These poems are by turns flirtatious, hilarious, plaintive, rage-filled, distraught, tender, resigned — they are as generous and tumultuous as the lives they imagine, represent, resent, remember, and memorialize.

In certain poems, such as “… kill us,” the traumas recalled are at once personal, cultural, and historical. Following news reports of the shooting of Korryn Gaines[vi], the speaker is overcome not only by her sense of unfathomable loss, but by the insidious, terrifying ways that public discourse frames, accounts for, and ultimately dismisses that loss:

you are not sure how to process a baby
wrapped in mama’s arms & her being shot & it
being all over the news & people are keeping tabs
about what she did wrong about her sanity
crazy black bitch
about if she had a right to be angry or to have

weapons if she had a right to be human (81)

The court of public opinion weighs — feels entitled to weigh — not only Gaines’s sanity, but her humanity and her right to her own life, to her son’s life. The verdict is rendered in an instant by her killer, by the social media mob-mind, which shouts, “crazy black bitch.” The speaker is painfully aware of the cultural and historical dimensions of this tragedy, that “this is not the alpha or omega / of this” loss. Rather, the murderous “they” recalls the drowned bodies of the Middle Passage, and now the speaker keeps “tabs” and remembers that this terror is always ready, in an instant, to “be true for / you & yours too”:

& you know “they’re
trying to kill us” is trapped at the bottom of all
oceans is overboard & above & in between
time & you feel like (keeping tabs) it could be true for
you & yours too, “they’re trying to kill us.”
“they’re trying to kill us.” “they’re trying to kill us.” (81)

In this poem, and beyond, Kodi Gaines’s words — and the piercing accuracy of his perception — will echo for all eternity.

The traumas of history are never far from the present in (v.). One prose poem in particular, “Master Tale,” simultaneously evokes chattel slavery in the fields of the past and economic drudgery in the corporate plantations of the present day through a series of spliced images and double-meanings:

we hid our accents (act/sense) never wanting our masters to know (no) who we really were. we dressed (the part) & made/maid our hair as perfect as perfect could be. when it was time to separate us, first by color, then by body type, we tried very hard to appear stone-faced and complacent, always texting each other & emailing our disapproval in code. i guess i should feel lucky — my master plans on giving me a 401(k) and time off after i have my child. he laughed and said, can’t wait to have that one on board with the company too (80)!

The slave and corporate “masters” judge and separate each body, and imagine unborn generations already bent in slavery, oblivious to the coded messages the anonymous “we” shares amongst themselves. In both times and realities, these speakers confront the dehumanizing white gaze through evasion, silence, and withdrawal. Their ultimate recourse comes in community, and in the quiet, unseen work of holding each other up, holding each other together:

& we try our best to hold each other up    we try our best to cover for each other when one of us is down down down way deep in the fields when one of us has lost all shuck & jive & accidentally returns from lunch late with a feather or two & a bit of blood soaked through our cotton shirts (80).

What then, when one is “down down down way deep in the fields,” when the “shuck & jive” falters? Not “if,” but “when.” The poem leaves us with no easy resolution. If this is survival, it is the long arc of cultural survival, and it is a bloody, vicious one. Thus the poem leaves us with this knowledge, too: there is no single, individual super-shero who (with)stands alone. The super-(s)heroes among us are the anonymous, amorphous selves of the we, the us, together.

(pro)verb

sometimes a heart is a tenant & sometimes a heart is a house. neither knowing which is which until the house or tenant vanishes.
       or
we church-fanned the next day (lord thank you).
       or
we are already walking
dead we are already
ghostly bodies risen
& risen again & again[vii]

Let us give thanks for our muse and these poems. If you meet yourself at the river, drowning, forget it — go back, keep reading, and finish upon the earth with her.

Fin.
(Debut)

* * *

[i] In her biographical statement accompanying Forget It on Black Radish Books’ website, the poet describes herself as “a full time queer super-shero of color moonlighting as a writer, performance artist and creative writing workshop facilitator.” I offer this invocation, and the answer and proverb that follow, as one poet’s humble tribute to another.

[ii] The quotations in this “prayer” (indicated in Roman text) come from Anastacia-Reneé’s “No Fairy Tale (2)” in Forget It, p. 58.

[iii] Though I say “our,” I do not wish to elide the differences in privilege and pain experienced by the poet and myself. As a straight, cis-gender white woman, I am by definition an outsider to many of the experiences that Anastacia-Reneé recounts. These are poems for Black girls and women, first and foremost, and so I am grateful even to be a small party to this conversation.

[iv] The quotations in this “answer” (indicated in Roman text) come from Anastacia-Reneé’s poems “4” and “14” in Answer(Me), pp. 15 and 31, and her poems [“today alice is a marshmallow],” “The City (1),” “No Fairy Tale (2),” and “No Fairy Tale (3) in Forget It, pp. 32, 43, and 58-9.

[v] Perhaps alice metropolis is Anastacia-Reneé’s answer to W. C. Williams’ Paterson and Charles Olson’s Maximus, though she also seems to hearken towards the poet’s own term as a Hugo House writer-in-residence and Civic Poet of Seattle. Indeed, alice metropolis’s refrain in 9 Ounces, “keep it moving,” echoes and overturns the original meaning of Olson’s famous exhortation, “Keep it moving, Citizen,” from his 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse.” Whereas Olson’s phrase is in homage to the speed, privilege, and compass of his (assuredly white, assuredly male) citizen, Anastacia-Reneé’s revision emphasizes movement as a means of survival for black bodies in hostile public spaces. For more on 9 Ounces and “Projective Verse,” see Rebecca Garcia Moreno’s review of 9 Ounces­­.

[vi] Korryn Shandawn Gaines, a 23-year-old mother of two, was shot while holding her son, Kodi, by Baltimore County police officers during a stand-off at her apartment. The words “they’re trying to kill us” are Kodi’s and were originally broadcast on Instagram during the stand-off. Gaines’s murder received national attention and ultimately garnered a $38 million settlement for her wrongful death, as well as the injuries Kodi sustained in the shooting.

[vii] The quotations in this “(pro)verb” come from Anastacia-Reneé’s poems: respectively, “No Fairy Tale (3),” “4,” and “Dead to You” in Forget It, p. 59; Answer(Me), p. 15; and (v.), p. 30.

Works Cited

Anastacia-Reneé. Answer(Me). Winged City Chapbooks, 2017.

—. Forget It. Black Radish Books, 2017.

—. (v.). Gramma Poetry, 2017.

Jess, Tyehimba. Publisher’s Blurb. Gramma Poetry, https://gramma.press/bookshop/v/. Accessed 18 June 2018. 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


jpb_authorphoto

Dr. Julie Phillips Brown is a poet, painter, scholar, and book artist. After earning an MFA and a PhD at Cornell University, she served as the NEH Post-Doctoral Fellow in Poetics at Emory University’s Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Angels of the Americlypse, Columbia Poetry Review, Conjunctions (online exclusive), Contemporary Women’s Writing, Crab Orchard Review, delirious hem, Denver Quarterly, Interim, Jacket2, Mixed Messages, Peregrine, Posit, Rappahannock Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Talisman, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Lexington, Virginia, where she teaches creative writing, studio art, and American literature.

 

by Michael S. Collins, PhD

&

The Vietnam War poems of Yusef Komunyakaa were born in the shadow of lies under which the war was sheltered: lies that grew down from Washington, D.C. into the brains of soldiers. According to Daniel Ellsberg, who for a time helped shape military strategy but turned against the war and leaked a massive secret study of its unreported expansions, “the system that I had been working for … [was] a system that lies automatically at every level from bottom to top — from sergeant to commander in chief. … I had in my safe … seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents … over twenty-three years … ” (289). Those thousands of pages documented a whole zoology of lies, including especially the most intimate and potent of them all: self-deceptions, which year after year prevented Ellsberg and his superiors from seeing that the war was unwinnable and that the increasing numbers of people protesting against it were right.

In 1971 Ellsberg finally leaked the pages, now known as the Pentagon Papers, in an effort to add weight to the protests by widening what war critics called the “credibility gap”: the distance between what the U.S. government said about the war, what the protestors increasingly knew and, most important, what soldiers came to suffer in the form of cognitive dissonance, PTSD, and worse.[1]

The lies of war are at the center of Komunyakaa’s poem “Chair Gallows” (Pleasure Dome 47) about the singer-songwriter and anti-war activist Phil Ochs. Gil Troy of the Daily Beast reports that “Ochs — like many others — crashed from the heights of the 1960s into lows of cynicism and nihilism [reflected in his lyrics, such as] ‘I am the masculine American man, I kill therefore I am.’ ” In 1976, “buffeted by bipolar episodes … [Ochs] made a noose with a belt … stood on a chair … and kicked the chair away” (Troy). Lines in “Chair Gallows” record the moment when Komunyakaa reads the news:

                                                      I hope this is just another lie,
just another typo in a newspaper headline.

                                    But I know war criminals
live longer than men lost between railroad tracks

                                    & crossroad blues, with twelve strings
two days out of hock.

Komunyakaa gestures to the shelter, under which the war and the whole American political era that supported it existed, with his hope that “this is just another lie.” But he also acknowledges what the shelter enables: the survival in power of “war criminals / [who] live longer than [relentless truth seekers like Ochs].” Sheltering under their own lies, the war criminals presumably do not undertake the dangerous work of looking into the abyss of self-knowledge, whose dangers Komunyakaa represents with a mirror metaphor in the last two lines of “Chair Gallows”: “I’ve seen in women’s eyes / men who swallow themselves in mirrors.”

His consciousness, in particular, revolves around a question that would have been drilled into him during basic training: “What’s the spirit of the bayonet, soldier?” The answer he would have been taught is “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

The protagonist in Komunyakaa’s “Torsion” (The Emperor of Water Clocks 57-58) comes close to swallowing himself in the mirror of reflection on his participation in the war. His consciousness, in particular, revolves around a question that would have been drilled into him during basic training: “What’s the spirit of the bayonet, soldier?” The answer he would have been taught is “Kill! Kill! Kill!” As military historian Richard Kohn explains, 20th-century bayonet training was “designed to … mitigate or eradicate the reluctance of human beings to kill each other” (Mulrine).

The soldier in “Torsion,” striving to separate his true self from the bayonet’s spirit, reflects ruefully that he

                        had been tapered, honed, & polished in AIT 
& then pointed toward grid coordinates on a ragged map,
His feelings cauterized.

What points him and draws the grid that guides him is the web of war decisions and lies reaching back to the White House. He comes to feel that not just his decision making but his very self has been compromised by his training. This emerges when he describes his role in a battle where he witnesses a likely war crime as defined by the Geneva Conventions[2]:

                                                            After medevac choppers
Flew out the badly wounded & the body bags,
Three men in his squad became two tigers at sunset
& walked through the village. They kicked a pagoda
Till it turned into the crumbly dust of cinnabar,
& then torched thatched roofs.

Although U.S. forces torched some villages as a matter of policy, such villages were supposed to have been cleared of civilians in order to make the settlement part of a “free-fire zone” inhabited only by enemy combatants. But in “Torsion,” the three soldiers seem to be motivated mainly by rage that causes them to forget the wallet cards troops were supposed to be given upon arrival in Vietnam — cards that advised them to show understanding and generosity toward Vietnamese civilians.[3]

The speaker in “Torsion” receives a medal for his role in winning the battle. But for him the medal is a “scarab / in a pharaoh’s brain.” The pharaoh here is not the soldier but probably the American president at the head of the “Lying Machine” (Ellsberg’s term) that keeps the war going. The actions that earned the medal — actions the soldier did not feel fully in control of — are in a sense the actions of the spirit of the bayonet, which, via the web of decisions and lies descending from the American president, connects the pharaoh’s brain to the soldier’s hands.

In particular, the spirit of the bayonet so tightly bonds the soldier to an M60 machine gun that “his body became part of the metal. … No, he couldn’t stop / firing as he rode the M60 machine gun to a primal grunt / before he buckled & spewed vomit over the barrel.” The spirit of the bayonet, in other words, functions like an automatic nervous system that makes the firing of the gun a reflex action. (One sign of true political power is its ability to take over — or, here, replace — a nervous system.) The soldier’s natural nervous system makes its statement only after the firing has finished, when he vomits.

What all this means is that the spirit of the bayonet effectively divides the soldier from the self that the military honors: The protagonist recalls that

                     The battalion saluted but he wished to forget his hands,
& the thought of metal made him stand up straight.
He shipped back to the world only to remember blood
on the grass, men dancing on a lit string of bullets,
Women and children wailing among the flame trees,
& he wished he hadn’t been trained so damn well. )

The self that vomits wants to reclaim the entire soldier, but the training that allowed the spirit of the bayonet to travel through him and out the muzzle of the M60 prevents full self-possession. The self that vomited is the self that believes in and wants to live the commandment thou shall not kill, which the soldier invokes at the end of the poem.

Ironically, even those who ran the Lying Machine that took over nervous systems like the soldier’s were somewhat lost to themselves and their own better angels. Lyndon Johnson, the president who did most to expand the war, is said to have done so (deceiving the public all the while) partly out of fear of being attacked and gored from his political right so severely that he would lose the authority he needed to wage his epic and noble war on poverty and inequality in the United States.

The loss of credibility that finally destroyed his presidency and set the stage for actions like Ellsberg’s can be traced to a scarab of lies, misinterpretations, and self-deceptions that crawled through not only his but also his predecessors’, his successors’, and most of their aides’ brains. The pharaoh’s brain in “Torsion,” then, is a collective brain: the brain of the leadership of a whole society. As an incarnation of the scarab crawling through that brain, the medal the soldier in “Torsion” earns, therefore, pins the whole muddled, lie-riddled justification for the war to his chest. The protagonist of “Torsion” never fully finds a way out of this muddle. But both his story and the stories told in related Komunyakaa poems suggest that the only way out is to expand the mind’s bandwidth beyond the limits imposed upon it by incubi like the spirit of the bayonet.

One sees how this might begin to happen in Komunyakaa’s poem “Prisoners” (Pleasure Dome 214-215), where the protagonist has to fight an urge to bow to Vietnamese captives who, he realizes, cannot be broken by any torture: “When they start talking / with ancestors … you know,” he tells himself, “you’ll have to kill them / to get an answer.” In the last two lines, he mocks the war’s most infamous example of self-deceptive might — the assertion, made by an American after the brutal 1968 bombing the Vietnamese city of Ben Tre, that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”[4]

The actions that earned the medal — actions the soldier did not feel fully in control of — are in a sense the actions of the spirit of the bayonet, which, via the web of decisions and lies descending from the American president, connects the pharaoh’s brain to the soldier’s hands.

The prose poem “A Summer Night in Hanoi” (Komunyakaa, Pleasure Dome 399-400) goes in the other direction, celebrating the life-affirming commonalities between the poet’s African American peasant culture and Vietnamese peasant culture. Even as a columnist and editor for a military newspaper where, by definition, he could not deviate too far from the official U.S. line on Vietnam during his 1969 tour, Komunyakaa tried to educate his readers on the need to respect Vietnamese religions and Vietnamese people, and to act in such a way that members of the Viet Cong might defect to the South Vietnamese side without fear of becoming mistreated prisoners of war. But, obviously, even if he knew confirmable details about them at the time, he was not in a position to publish condemnations of the sometimes grotesque mistreatment or murder of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners who fell into the hands of South Vietnamese forces or vindictive American troops (mistreatment and murder of the sort he writes about in such poems as “Prisoners,” and “Phantasmagoria”. In “Re-creating the Scene,” the Komunyakaa-like speaker’s report of a gang rape does lead to an, alas, abortive trial).

In “A Summer Night in Hanoi,” he takes the step of expressing open admiration for Ho Chi Minh. The occasion of the poem is the watching of a film about Ho during a 1990 Hanoi conference that brought together U.S. and Vietnamese writer-veterans. As the poem begins, the version of Komunyakaa who is speaking says, “When the movie house lights click off … I hear Billie’s whispered lament. [The movie] Ho Chi Minh the Man rolls across the skin of five lynched black men.” Here the sufferings of the young Ho Chi Minh and his country under the vicious brutality of French colonialism call to Komunyakaa’s mind the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” as sung by Billie Holiday.

The fact that, in the 1920s, Ho Chi Minh himself wrote an essay condemning the American habit of lynching African Americans confirms another aspect of the parallel Komunyakaa senses between the Black experience and the Vietnamese experience. True, knowledge of African American suffering was used for psychological warfare purposes by Ho’s broadcasters during the war.[5] Nevertheless, watching the movie, Komunyakaa finds a common denominator between himself and Ho, even as he, Komunyakaa, experiences the discomfort of being surrounded by people on whom his country had rained down destruction. As he puts it in “A Summer Night in Hanoi”: “I’m not myself here, craving a mask of silk elusive as [Ho’s] four aliases.” In Hanoi, Komunyakaa “didn’t feel safe” at first, he told the Kenyon Review: He was mindful of “what had been done to the Vietnamese people. … I felt that if it had happened to me, I’d be very angry. So I was very affected by how forgiving the typical Vietnamese happens to be towards Americans” (Baer 75).

Komunyakaa goes on to meditate on the reason for all those aliases—Ho’s activities as a revolutionary plotting against occupying powers had actually led him to create 20 false identities. This was during World War II, when France’s Vichy government had allowed Japan to occupy Vietnam and Ho was organizing guerilla bands against both. He traveled to China in 1942 to seek help in this mission from Chiang Kai-shek and was arrested on suspicion that “anyone carrying so many false documents must be a Japanese agent,” according to Ho biographer William J. Duiker.

In “A Summer Night in Hanoi,” as Komunyakaa tells it, “On his way to Chung-king to talk with Chang K’ai-shek about fighting the Japanese … he’s arrested and jailed for fourteen months. Sitting here in the prison of my skin, I feel his words grow through my fingertips till I see his southern skies and old friends where mountains are clouds.”

The words from Ho that Komunyakaa feels in his fingertips are probably those of poems Ho wrote in Chinese while incarcerated. The phrase “the prison of my skin” splices the conditions of the segregated South in which Komunyakaa passed his childhood to those faced by Ho as someone caught (long before what Americans call the Vietnam War) in the French and then Japanese domination of Vietnam. “Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs,” Ho writes in his poem “On the Road” (Prison Diary 34),

                        All over the mountains I hear the song of birds,
and the forest is filled with the perfume of spring-flowers.
Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these,
which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?

Here Ho quarries out the spark of agency from his double imprisonment the Chinese jail and in the global coils of colonialism. Writing by choice in Chinese and in a traditional Chinese poetic form, Ho cannily chooses a medium for his agency that is congenial to his jailers and intended to at once make the case for his innocence and show his sophistication and worthiness of being freed. This example of quarrying a spark of pure agency out of the despair of imprisonment no doubt strikes a strong chord with Komunyakaa, who through poetry and prose has quarried a pure spark of agency out of confining stereotypes faced by a Black man born in the segregated South.

Komunyakaa has described his life as “a healing process from two places” (Hedges 157) —Louisiana and Vietnam. Never dehumanizing and healing are intimately connected in his work. A key part of both is the refusal to tell the lies (like the ones that justify colonialism and racial segregation) that short-circuit identification and what philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called communication intended to reach understanding: “I never used the word ‘gook’ or ‘dink’ in Vietnam,” Komunyakaa stressed in 2004. “… There is a certain kind of dehumanization that takes place to create an enemy, to call up the passion to kill this person” (Hedges 157). Furthermore, “I myself came from a peasant society. … So I saw the Vietnamese as familiar peasants” (Baer 73), he said in 1998.

This sense of an overlap in Black and Vietnamese life experience had been expressed by Ho decades earlier, not only in his anti-lynching essay, but also an anti-Ku Klux Klan essay published in the 1920s.[6] In such acts of identification by Ho and Komunyakaa, the bandwidth needed for empathy is not expanded (a tall order, given the current limits of human brainpower[7]) but cleansed for a moment of the lies, misrepresentations, self-deceptions, and fallacies[8] that always and forever come to clog it. These lies, misrepresentations, self-deceptions and fallacies are perpetrated sometimes by the spirit of the bayonet, sometimes (as we know so well in the Trump era) by the spirit of chauvinism, sometimes by sheer intellectual exhaustion: They are perpetrated even by the “objective” analyses and calculations that are created to save us from our limitations but that, when relied upon too heavily in either war or peace, deliver us to our limits as surely as the soldier in “Torsion” is delivered over to the “grid coordinates” where the only truth to hold onto is his M60.

Notes:
[1] One regularly encounters such soldiers in Komunyakaa’s works.
[2] More than one article in the Southern Cross, the military newspaper Komunyakaa worked for in Vietnam, reminded American soldiers about their obligations and rights under the Geneva Conventions. Of course, using body count as a measure of success, as the military brass did during the war, tended to undermine that sort of Geneva conditioning.
[3] For more on free fire zones and the cards, see Gutman and Rieff’s Crimes of War (1999).
[4] See Pringle’s 2004 article in the New York Times. For someone of Ochs’ ilk, this statement epitomizes the whole “logic” of America’s intervention in Vietnam. For South Vietnamese, like those who fled to the United States after the U.S. pulled out, however, the real nightmare was the Communist forces America battled.
[5] Writing in 1969 under his birth name (James Brown) and, probably not coincidentally, at a time when he had risen to the editorship of Southern Cross, Komunyakaa warned fellow soldiers that “racial disharmony … can greatly hinder military missions” (Brown 2). The fruits of disharmony are dramatized in Komunyakaa’s poems such as “One-Legged Stool,” where allegations of racism among his fellow soldiers is part of the apparatus built by his Vietnamese captors to break a Black POW. For more on the psychological warfare practiced by the North Vietnamese and their allies, see Collins 137-138 and Salas 70-77.
[6] See Ho’s “Lynching” and “The Ku Klux Klan” in On Revolution.
[7] A good proxy for the “bandwidth” or “power” of a mind is working memory. As Cowan explains, “working memory and its limits [are] a key part of the human condition. …We need working memory in language comprehension, to retain earlier parts of a spoken message until it can be integrated with the later parts … in reasoning, to retain the premises while working with them; and in most other types of cognitive tasks. … Because working memory is limited, there is sometimes important work that fails to get done”(Cowan 1-2).

[8] The most self-deceptive and destructive misapprehension of the war may be the “McNamara Fallacy,” named in mockery of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s devotion to statistical analyses of the situation in Indochina: One wag summarized the fallacy as “Measure what can easily be measured” and presume that what “cannot easily be measured does not exist.” In his later years, McNamara confessed that he and others had been infected by delusions of omniscience.

 

Works Cited

Baer, William. “Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Hanshaw, pp. 70-83.

Brown, James. “The Army Attitude and Racial Discrimination.” Southern Cross, vol. 2, no. 32, 7 November 1969, p. 2.

Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, vol. 18, no. 2/vol. 19, no. 1, 1993, pp. 126-150.

Cowan, Nelson. Working Memory Capacity: Essays in Cognitive Psychology. Psychology Press, 2005.

Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. Hachette Books, 2001.

Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of the Pentagon Papers. Penguin, 2002.

Gutman, Roy, and David Rieff. Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know. W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Hedges, Chris. “A Poet of Suffering, Endurance and Healing.” Hanshaw, pp. 156-158.

Ho Chi Minh. The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh, translated by Aileen Parker. Bantam Books, 1971.

—. On Revolution, edited by Bernard B. Fall, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Pleasure Dome, Wesleyan UP, 2001.

—. The Emperor of Water Clocks. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Mulrine, Anna. “One Less Skill for Soldiers to Master at Boot Camp: Bayonet Training.” The Christian Science Monitor, 28 September 2010.

Pringle, James. “Meanwhile: The Quiet Town Where the Vietnam War Began.” New York   Times, 23 March 2004.

Salas, Angela. Flashback Through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. Rosemont Publishing and Printing Company, 2004.

Troy, Gil. “The Singing Journalist Who Left Too Soon.” Daily Beast, 3 April 2016.


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